Oscar’s New “Thank You Cam”

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Seasoned crisis managers have an innate ability to predict probable outcomes of various gnarly situations. In "crisis preparedness" exercises, they attempt to anticipate all the "what ifs?" and then simulate communications plans to address each possible scenario.

It's a fair bet that many crisis counselors knew immediately how the Toyota recall might snowball into its current cataclysmic dimensions.

Today we learn that the #1 Japanese automaker's dealers in southern California, apparently not content with the glacial pace of an entrenched corporate culture, retained the region's go-to crisis guy Michael Sitrick to cure what ails their sales.

Sitrick is perhaps more closely associated with guiding the likes of Michael Jackson's family, Paris Hilton and Chris Brown through their travails, but I guess the saying "it comes with the territory" applies here. How do you feel that the firm posted a link on its home page touting its latest crisis client?

While we're talking Hollywood, my thoughts turned to crisis mitigation after reading a Reuters piece detailing efforts to deal with "the single most hated thing" on the Oscar telecast: those supposedly 45-second speeches that morph into endless tear-filled thank yous to agents, managers, directors, fellow actors, family members and even lowly PR peeps.

This year, we're told, things will be different. The show producers recently held a luncheon, i.e., a prepardeness exercise, wherein they instructed each nominee to create two speeches:

"Typically, that advice is to keep them short and avoid a long list of "thank yous" to agents, directors, spouses and family...Instead, he [Bill Mechanic] and co-producer Adam Shankman [any relation?] will have winners give two speeches: one onstage telling audiences what winning an Oscar means to them, and a second backstage for a "Thank You Cam" where winners can say "Thanks" to whomever they want."
There's still no guarantee these unpredictable winners will abide by the rules:
"So to illustrate their idea, the producers showed a videotape of past winners such as Renee Zellweger talking about what winning meant to them."
Media training pros, sound familiar?

As for preparing two speeches, I still hold out hope that one day some clever company will make my Academy Award marketing idea a reality.

It goes like this: pay each supporting actress (or actor) nominee to pre-tape a TV spot promoting the marketer's product or service. Once the Oscar winner is announced and speech delivered, the telecast cuts directly to commercial featuring the winner (in his/her Oscar attire) gushing on the evening's achievement (and the sponsor).

I suppose, it could work for losers too:
"Oh well. I was in excellent company. Better luck next time. Doesn't my hair look great? I have to thank my hairdresser and stylist, but also Nice 'n Easy - something I pray will happen next year."

Mining Influence Without Twitter & Facebook

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In his PR Squared blog post "When Clients Want Coverage in Your Blog: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas," my buddy Todd Defren frames the debate with the following two questions:
Should clients be allowed to leverage the agency’s (or its staffers’) brand to promote their own? Should the agency principal ask a well-known staff blogger to write about a client’s news/products?"
Even those of us with comparatively modest numbers of followers have been leaned on by clients to plug them in our posts or tweets. (The latter channel for me has the extra reverb of my Friendfeed, Facebook, Ping.fm, Google Buzz, and LinkedIn pages.)

I also happen to agree with Todd's philosophy about using one's personal and professional pulpit for promotional purposes:
"Honestly I don’t have a hard & fast rule here, my judgment is based on whether y-o-u will get value from the post. Given that this is a blog about Marketing/PR/Social Media, the client’s news or product would need to fit in that category, or else I am wasting your time."
Still, there seems to be a feeding frenzy among agencies to hire those with "followings." How often do we hear about some blogger or active Twitter user, with relatively meager PR credentials, getting gobbled up by one agency or another? Was it the size of their spheres of megaphonic influence that sealed the deal or their PR smarts? Maybe the two are related? And how are they positioned to clients clamoring for a little more Twitter juice?

But I digress. One way to circumvent a potential loss of cred among their flocks by those who socially shill for their agency's clients is through the proper disclosure in their posts or tweets. Adding (in parenthesis) the word "client" seems to be the preferred mode for making it all OK.

There are other methods for codifying the disclosure of paid relationships, including WOMMA's "Ethics Assessment Tool," cmp.ly's "simple disclosure solution," Sponsored Tweets' "Disclosure Engine," and Izea's Code of Ethics. (Thanks to Converseon's Constantin Basturea for pointing out some of these.)

Now what if I were to tell you that one's number of followers and conversations mined on Twitter or Facebook may not be the end-all for identifying (and cultivating) influencers? I have one client (wit: full-disclosure) whose Israeli developed analytics technology skips the public conversations altogether for pinpointing influencers AND their followers.

The company, called Pursway, has figured out how to apply its algorithm to the voluminous amount of behavioral data that resides in its clients' internal customer databases. Here's a short item from TechCrunch. Once influencers and their followers are identified, Pursway develops engagement/cultivation programs exclusively for the influencers, which ultimately yields (for the company's 20+ clients) a 5-10x increase in customer acquisition, retention and cross-selling.

In truth, I was a little reluctant to post on this client, but, like Todd, I concluded that the topic resides in my editorial sweet spot and also provides value to the more analytics-minded followers of this space. And a hat tip to Todd for his inspiration.

Publicity for Roach Motels

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I enjoyed reading New York Times travel writer Joe Sharkey's interview with TripAdvisor.com CEO Stephen Kaufer in which Kaufer defends the integrity of the just-published, crowd-sourced “2010 Dirtiest Hotels” list.

In the piece "A List No Hotel Wants to Be On," Kaufer states the obvious:
"...if you’re a hotel on that list, it is not a good sign for your business...Please believe me,” he added, “we are careful about the lists, so a hotel isn't named just because there are four bad reviews. We are dealing with someone’s reputation. It’s the ones that are consistently bad that make it — and I challenge any curious individual to check out one of these places and see whether they deserve to be on the list."
He then goes on to explain how the sheer number of actual user-reviews pre-empts the potential for fraudulent reviews (by competitors) or "astroturfed" positive reviews by the hotels themselves (and its representatives):
“It’s damned hard to trick our system in a way that would affect the ratings, because we have the sheer volume of reviews to use for comparison,” Mr. Kaufer said. “Suspicious activity is caught in our filters before it makes it live to the site. And then we rely on the millions of people a day who are not shy about clicking on the link to report that they smell a rat.”
So what's a PR person to do when your hospitality (or any consumer-facing) client asks you to "fix" the overwhelming amount of negativity flowing online from the court of public opinion??? Well, that's a no-brainer: tell your client to address the deficiencies in his product or service. Wasn't that what Jeff Jarvis forced Dell to do back in the nascent days of citizen journalism?

In an age when the groundswell can make or break businesses, no amount of whitewashing will fix that which is truly broken. And frankly, to take that route might very well be a breach of WOMMA's code of ethics. Conversely, if you do have a product or service of which you are especially proud, there are acceptable ways to digitally unleash your customers' evangelical powers.

Doubting Thomases

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Washington Post media columnist and CNN "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz set tongues-a waggin today with his column echoing complaints that President Obama has purposely avoided the White House press corps in order to control his message:
"Every president attempts to circumvent the press corps, viewing it as obsessed with process stories and "gotcha" questions. That's not exactly fair -- they do traffic in substance -- but talk shows have provided an easier forum since the days when Bill Clinton first went on Larry King and MTV. Obama, for his part, is the first Internet president, with his radio addresses on YouTube, videos on Whitehouse.gov and official photos on Flickr. There's a White House blog, and deputy press secretary Bill Burton has been weighing in on Twitter."
Duh. But I have to agree with Dan Gillmor who questioned in a tweet whether the press corps even has the ability to get at the truth:
dangillmor maybe if Obama held more press conferences the DC press corps could actually start doing its job again -- nah, another fantasy
about 1 hour ago from Seesmic
dangillmor Howard Kurtz imagines (wrongly) that the DC press corps asks presidents serious follow up questions -- Howard Kurtz: White House press corps feels bypassed by Obama in favor of TV shows, YouTube-- hardly ever
about 1 hour ago from Seesmic
The White House press corps naturally is venting over its diminished role, in spite of much wider and qualitative Presidential media coverage than the one or two 20-second sound bites that might survive the standard presser. I mean who can reasonably argue that this President doesn't do enough jousting with the media, especially when compared to his predecessor?
"It's a source of great frustration here," says Chip Reid, CBS's White House correspondent. "It's important for us to hold the president's feet to the fire."
"NBC White House reporter Chuck Todd calls the situation a "shame," saying the administration is trying to control the message rather than allowing Obama to be seen "unscripted."
The Obamaites counter that their boss is among the most transparent that Americans have ever seen. Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary:
"We have probably done more interviews with more reporters at this point in our presidency than anybody else has. We have hardly been a shrinking violet when it comes to turning on your TV and seeing Barack Obama."
Communications director Dan Pfeiffer adds that "not doing press conferences is equated with not taking questions, and that's not true." While the best way for a president to reach the public in the past was "through the reporters sitting in the first three rows of the White House pressroom. . . . there's no question that the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo and their conservative counterparts can drive a story as well as the traditional powers at the New York Times and Washington Post."
This administration has endured considerable scrutiny of its efforts (or lack thereof) for delivering the digital democracy that served Obama so well on the campaign trail. Yet, even with a paucity of direct-to-constituency communications, one has to admit that the White House's generous use of new modes of communications, outside the stilted (staged) WH Presser, has offered Americans a wider window into this administration than any in modern history.

Do these new modes give the President greater control over his message? Well, clearly the creation and posting of original content does, but I'm not convinced that facing a room full of Beltway news correspondents provides a more accurate reflection of Obama's policies and proclivities than that which might result from a (crowd-sourced) interview with Katie Couric.

The Tweeky Wheel Gets Oiled

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I recently noticed Craig Newmark, yes that Craig, give a Tweet-out to @comcastcares (aka Frank Eliason) over some issue he was having with his cable service.

I thought at the time how Craig, the mensch that he is, would have little problem soliciting Comcast's attention. What consumer-facing company in its right mind today would dare to ignore someone with 19,000+ Twitter followers (and their followers...and their followers)?

It was only a few years ago that A-list bloggers were alone among the citizenry in their capacity to strike fear into the hearts of corporate reputation managers and their agencies.

I once had an issue with my Lincoln MKX. The roof rack ripped from the car when transporting my son's sailboat to a regatta. It put a huge gash in the roof. The dealer washed his hands of the matter claiming the roof racks were not to blame. Ford customer service, after checking with the dealer, said essentially the same thing.

I decided to take to my blog to out the problem. Sure enough, Ford's social media manager picked up on my online rant -- in the days before Scott Monty mind you - and agreed to pay the repair cost. It was the only time my wife ever admitted that my blog had any kind of monetary value.

Not everyone has a blog, however. Enter Twitter. On Sunday, SF Gate reinforced how the microblogging channel has quickly emerged as the preferred customer service channel for companies with the wherewithal (and foresight) to listen and respond. No longer are consumers forced to wait interminably for a live body to pick up the phone or grapple with those tortuous phone prompts.

What's more: one doesn't have to be the founder of Craig's List to get satisfaction. Tweeting the name of the offending company followed by the word "Fail" preferably preceded by a hashtag (#) typically does the trick. As Comcast's Eliason explained:
"Social media is a communications channel that's owned by the customer. It used to be that marketing was king. It's now going to be about service, creating the right experience, (which) might be listening to your customers, engaging them or making sure what you're doing is the right thing right off the bat."
Talking about Twitter as a customer service channel, I'll never forget how one of my clients -- a prominent CEO in a crisis situation -- had his name stolen on Twitter and the thief was tweeting all kinds of unbecoming things. I contacted Twitter's founders @ev and @biz about the problem who in turn took down the offending account. I bet it was the last time that Twitters' founders personally answered a customer service call.

Bye Bye Bobby

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A few friends sent me Jim Barron's New York Times "City Room" piece on PR man Bobby Zarem's decision to leave his adopted city for his boyhood home of Savannah, Georgia. And why should I care? Well, other than Elaine's losing its most famous patron (and promoter), and the city, its most original (and supportive) PR persona, Zarem Inc. is where I cut my teeth in this business.

The methods we used to build (MSM-only) buzz and awareness back then were starkly different than today. For starters, the office arrival of our first IBM Correcting Selectric typewriters (Zarem kept his manual) was a revelation, heralding in a whole new era of productivity, i.e., no more white-out, or powder-coated paper to mask typos.

Story pitches were made by phone and on paper, with fax, email, SMS and BBM light years away. Forget about Facebook and Twitter. These weren't even glimmers in Mark or Evan's eyes, since both had yet to be born. More often than not, we dispatched Luther, our full-time messenger, to deliver Bobby's hyperbolic pitch notes to the messenger centers of the major media of the day -- almost all of which were located in a ten-block radius of midtown Manhattan.

My three-year term with Zarem included a total of five days of paid vacation and one gift from Bobby for the work I did on Alan Alda's second movie "The Four Seasons." It was a cable cashmere sweater from his brother Danny's toney shop on East 57th Street, Andre Oliver.

Immediately after leaving Zarem's employ, I jettisoned one of his peculiar PR pitch practices. We all know that "there are many windows and doors" into a particular media outlet (to quote my former colleague Pete Judice of Burson-Marsteller). If one reporter doesn't bite, perhaps a different one will, usually with a modified pitch angle.

Zarem, however, insisted on opening all doors and windows at once. He would draft a single pitch letter addressed to multiple reporters, editors, and in one pitch to The Times, an Sulzberger-Ochs family member who, needless to say, was not very appreciative.

The opening salutation might read: Dear Bob, Ms. Jones, Mr. Smith, Susan, John and Rita -- with first names reflecting those he knew personally. Check marks were applied atop the name to match the envelope. (Could this be transparency at its worst?) Today I shudder to think how those lucky recipients reacted, though few in the biz could argue with the end result.

In retrospect, I would have to say that my early years plying the PR trade with an uber-publicist like Zarem continues to help me to this day. But, boy do I have stories! Unfortunately for you (and fortunately for him), Bobby will have to depart more than New York City for these tales to see the light of day.

Social Media Week Sound-Off

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Yesterday was the official start of Social Media Week, which this year expanded from one city (New York) to a six-city extravaganza of pundits and prophets extolling the personal and professional promise of this media, marketing and communications juggernaut.

With its hundreds of events -- 80 alone in the Big Apple -- this cornucopia of compelling content and characters would not be complete without the obligatory launch party. So here I was at Elizabeth on Elizabeth Street somewhere between Soho and Nolita. SMWNYC's lead organizer Toby Daniels secured three sponsors -- Meebo, Pepsi and Diageo -- to ensure that the hors d'oeuvres and alcohol continually refreshed.

I had my digital audio recorder with me and did my best to grab some sound bites from those I knew or recognized. Click on the names for the audio amidst the digital din:
  • Toby Daniels (@tobyd), Social Media Week's organizer, provides the hot and skinny.
  • 360i's sr. director of emerging media and innovation (and Social Media Insider columnist) David Berkowitz (@dberkowitz) on his company's acquisition by Dentsu and his latest column on Gowana vs. FourSquare (and all others).
  • Social Media Club co-founder Howard Greenstein (@howardgr) on this week's events and his club's role therein.
  • PR Newser editor Joe Ciarallo (@JoeCiarallo) on this week's events, including MediaBistro's sold-out Tweet-up tonight, and which marketing discipline will own social media going forward.
  • PepsiCo's Global Director of Digital and Social Media Bonin Bough (@boughb) on how to measure his company's pathbreaking social media campaign, the Pepsi Refresh Project.
  • And much to her likely relief, Just an Online Minute's indefatigable Kelly Samardak's (@socialmedium) comments are virtually inaudible due to the party noise. (You'll just have to trust me that she didn't disappoint.)
Party photo by Kelly Samardak for Just an Online Minute (via Flickr)

A Transparent Apple

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Here's the opening line of the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global opinion leaders study:
"For the first time, this year's Trust Barometer shows that trust and transparency are as important to corporate reputation as the quality of products and services."
We now find ourselves in the frothy wake of this week's biggest corporate event, other than Ford's swing to an annual profit of $2.7 billion or Toyota's historic global recall at an estimated cost of $2.5 billion a month (and untold amounts in devalued reputation).

I'm talking about the Steve Jobs show, the most recent subject of this space and of no fewer than a couple dozen stories...in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal alone.

In pondering the transparency element of the Edelman study, I can't help but scratch my head when considering the lack of negative correlation between Apple's opaqueness and its reputation. The Cupertinites sure have the trust equation figured out from a quality products and services perspective, but the study seems to suggest that a non-transparent company might very well suffer in the public trust department.

For Apple, isn't the opposite true? In an age when openness is touted as the "new" corporate virtue, Apple's strict adherence to a closed communications culture, i.e., no company engagement in the social graph for starters, has had no adverse affect on its reputation. I might even venture to say that this absence may even fuel the kind of mythic stature and frenzied buzz that only Howard Hughes or JD Salinger could appreciate.

By keeping Wednesday's news under draconian wraps, with perhaps just a few strategic leaks, the company orchestrated the biggest PR coup I think I've ever witnessed. The fawning buzz in the blogosphere, Twitterstream, MSM, and even among geeky gadget reviewers was deafening and palpable.

What should we now make of all those forward-thinking companies rushing to empower their employees to evangelize on their behalf (in social media and elsewhere) in efforts to elevate their respective reputations? Doesn't Apple teach us that the key to brand esteem is still primarily driven by the quality and differentiation of one's products and services?

But back to Apple's big day. Did you know that Steve Jobs took a casually (choreographed?) stroll to the post-launch demo area to kibbutz with one Walt Mossberg? Here's how one Reuters Media File reporter described the scene:
But the scene was hardly the impromptu, open conversation it appeared. Most of the people gathered around Jobs and Mossberg were not fellow reporters hunting for a quote, but a squad of no-nonsense, plain-clothed Apple staffers who had formed a human cordon around their leader. The only other person allowed within the safe zone was Mossberg, and any reporters who attempted to get near were physically blocked and pushed back.

Conversations with Apple staff about the iPad itself proved equally trying, with the mere act of getting a company spokesperson to confirm or clarify a fact feeling like an exercise in the theatre of the absurd.

“How do I spell your name?” this reporter asked an Apple staffer following a short conversation to confirm certain basic features of the iPad.

That’s not available for you,”
the staffer replied, in an eerily robotic tone.
Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. (Groan.)

Update (Feb 1) -- Apple stock (AAPL) hits 210+/- on day before announcement, drops to 193+/- today.

Where’s Scoble When We Need Him?

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I'm dumbfounded. It's one thing to keep under wraps or selectively leak tantalizing details about its game-changing, new category-creating tablet, to allow viral buzz grow to deafening volumes.

Yet, here we are at the moment of truth. The time has arrived. It's zero-hour and every media, tech, marketing and business reporter, plus the myriad Apple enthusiasts, and every other gadget guru on this planet (aren't we all) are either witnessing the Steve Jobs-hosted event live in-person, or are sitting in front of their screens desperately trying to soak in the news.

Except one thing: there isn't a single clean video and audio feed of this monumental media event. WTF! I'm confused. Doesn't Apple's vaunted PR team recognize the immeasurable value of feeding video of the launch of its new iPad directly to the rest of us? We'd even accept a single fixed camera!

The seemingly semi-official video stream, from Ustream (pictured above), is being captured on a cell phone, for goodness sake. HuffPost's touted a live video stream, but instead has Leo LaPorte and someone else chatting it up on a talk show set with blurry (but perhaps the best video of the bunch). Engadget has still images and texts. TechCrunch is inaccessible on my iMac. CNN's feed had fits and starts. And the Twitterstream is just that: short text bursts only.

I'm baffled. Didn't Apple learn from rival Google's recent launch of its category-killing Nexus One Andorid phone? If it weren't for Scoble's altruistic video stream for that one, we'd have been lost. Alas, Mr. Scoble is at home at Half Moon Bay with another commitment.

BTW - Glad to have tweeted this a few days ago:

@PeterHimler Some evidence for the name iPad RT @crunchgear Apple further tips its hand about tablet name http://bit.ly/5hEnjO (by @frompkin)

Facebooking the Flock

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As few as three or four years ago, the tech cognascenti would have led with today's news that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is urging priests to blog and embrace digital media. But in today's Twitter time, that was eons ago. Some social media evangelists may still run with this story, just as the AP has, though most will say it pales in comparison to news of the first real tweet from space (or one from President Obama).

Still, the papal digital edict points to more evidence that engaging constituents can no longer take a top-down, pulpit-driven approach, as Josh Sternberg noted in his HuffPost piece on religions' (versus religious) use of social media.

In his message delivered to flag the 44th World Communications Day this May (who knew there was one?), Pope Benedict XVI, now with his own social media-enabled site, said:
"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web," but priests are "challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources."
The Catholic News Service first flagged the Pope's call to digital arms last September. The Holy See saw (forgive) how other religions, ministries and radicalized religious movements have successfully embraced digital and social communications to re-energize (and re-populate) their respective flocks to evangelize and, for some, terrorize, on their behalf.
"If used wisely, and with the help of experts in technology and communications, the new media can become a valid and effective tool for priests and all pastoral workers for evangelization and communion that are true and full of meaning."
I wish Pope Benedict well in his mission to join the 21st century. With 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, and just 23,000 of them registered on the largest "Catholic Church" Facebook page I could find, he and his disciples clearly have their work cut out for them.

One-Time Mad Man

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"Since 2006, one out of every 17 novels bought in the United States was written by James Patterson. He is listed in the latest edition of “Guinness World Records,” published last fall, as the author with the most New York Times best sellers, 45, but that number is already out of date: he now has 51 — 35 of which went to No. 1."
These are remarkable stats from this Sunday's New York Times Magazine profile of the most prolific and successful novelists writing today. Reporter Jonathan Mahler relayed his experience sitting in...
"...on one of Patterson’s regular meetings with Little, Brown to discuss the marketing and publicity for his coming titles. The meeting was held not, as you might expect, at the publisher’s offices in Midtown Manhattan but in the living room of Patterson’s Palm Beach home, a canary yellow Spanish-style house on a small island in Lake Worth."
I did in fact meet James Patterson in his office, but well before his name was synonymous with the beach-reading crowd and well before he lived on a "canary yellow Spanish-style home on a small island in Lake Worth." Don't get me wrong. He was hugely successful at the time and quite well-known in his chosen profession -- just not as a novelist. I found him to be an affable, yet no-nonsense kind of guy.

It was the early or mid-eighties and Mr. Patterson served as chairman of J. Walter Thompson, the venerable advertising agency straight out of "Mad Men." At the time, I was the go-to "back-of-the-book" media relations guy at JWT's sibling PR agency Hill and Knowlton.

I remember being summoned from my cubicle to a meeting in Mr. Patterson's office in the Graybar Building. (So which JWT client had its ass in a sling today? I wondered.) It didn't take long before I learned the real reason for my visit. Jim's new (2nd?) novel was poised to come out and he was thus far non-plussed by the publicity effort. (Who even knew he was novelist?) Apparently, the previous PR guy incurred his wrath and was shit-canned off the project.

We talked for a while during which time I nervously probed him on the book and what he felt was unusual or newsworthy. Out of the blue, he let on that he named all of its characters after his current and former advertising clients. Huh? He proceeded to rattle off the characters' names and their real-life positions.

I loved this, and crafted a note for Richard Johnson, the then newbie editor of the New York Post's "Page Six." The item ran a few days later virtually unchanged.

Mr. Patterson was elated, not because he made New York's most influential gossip column, nor even that book sales perked, but rather because his mother called to say that she saw the item in her hometown newspaper. I guess I earned my keep, though I imagine the author's threshold for PR success sits much higher today.

Deceptive PR Practices

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That pink sheet for New York's media cognascenti -- The New York Observer -- yesterday published an internal New York Times email sent from standards editor Phil Corbett to the newsroom.

In it Corbett points out the "pitfalls" of quoting "consultants" whose financial ties to a story are murky. He writes:
"This is not a new problem, of course, but it seems to be on the rise. Consulting arrangements and other such deals are more and more common for doctors, academics, former policymakers and other experts. And unfortunately the sources are not usually quick to volunteer that information."
He's right. This is not a new problem. Here's a related post from this blog in 2006. Also, who'll forget how the Bush admin incentivized all those former generals to advocate for its doomed policies?

The practice of retaining "third-party spokespersons" as issues advocates or simply as promoters of commercial products or services remains a mainstay of the PR industry. Geesh. Who didn't think that Polaroid had shuttered its doors until the company last week announced the name of its new creative director -- Lady Gaga? (Nice hair, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta!)

Making celebrity or expert spokespersons available to journalists is not what's at stake here. Rather, it's the opaqueness of these newsmakers' paid affiliations that taints the editorial process and can mislead the public.

We're not talking about Sarah Palin joining the "fair & balanced" network. Everyone knows where she and her new employer stand in relation to the so-called "news" content wafting from FNC into America's living rooms.

This issue really blew up a few years back after some movie star with irritable bowel syndrome began describing her preferred treatment plan live on a network morning show. She was paid by a drug company to do so...without the program's cognisance. The producers went ballistic, and from then on, every talent booker required the publicist to fess up commercial affiliations in advance of the booking.

Still, deception abounds in our industry. We see Exxon Mobil with its massive advertising campaign touring clean energy when it funds lobbyists and organizations that advocate for an extension of the fossil fuel act. Even less consequential consumer product marketers, and their agencies, devise viral-wannabe videos without proper disclosure. And then I wonder whether bloggers and more recently Twitterers will reveal the names of those who pay-for-their- play.

I commend The New York Times for so publicly (re)articulating its policies regarding using "sponsored" sources in its news hole. More importantly, it is up to the PR industry to press harder so that astroturf not be allowed to take root in the everyday conduct of our profession.

Update (January 17) - New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt elaborates further.

Not Ready for PRime Time Players

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It's natural for us as PR pros to Monday-morning quarterback a prominent PR gaffe. After all, we have the advantage of not being at the table as the beleaguered PR consiglieres assess the myriad mitigating factors that would inform a communications strategy.

As outsiders, we can simply take notice of the ugly aftermath and postulate on how we could have done better. To this I say: maybe, maybe not.

As the first tweets on the Leno affair breathlessly scrolled down the screen of my iMac, I felt compelled to take to the microblogging platform with this:
PeterHimler 1st bit) Leno to work on affiliate relations 2nd) NBC considering re-slotting him 3rd) Leno in, Conan out. NEWS CONDENSED!
6:41 PM Jan 7th from Power Twitter
I found it curious the rapidly evolving and seemingly contradictory positions that emanated from NBC at the outset of this sensational story. It soon became clear (to me, and others I'm sure) that the the network's communications smorgasbord could have benefited from more time in the oven. It emerged uncooked and unready for consumer consumption.

The always astute David Carr, posting on The Times's MediaDecoder blog, opined on the futility of trying to reign in the two conductors who have since commandeered the runaway NBC message train:
"There are some things even the best communications strategy can’t fix and angry-talent-standing-in-front-of-a-pile-of-smoking-rubble-that-used-to-be-a-programming-schedule is one of them."
It elicited this response from a PR consultant who formerly repped NBC (and hopes to again):
"I wouldn’t have any good answers for them. There is a pain threshold here and we moved past that a while ago, but the network can’t muzzle them. The problem is that the carnage just seems to keep coming: Then you guys have things to write about and the hosts things to talk about."
Perhaps. But, in my mind, this is not an issue of muscling in with a message to mollify the men with the microphones. It's an operational issue that NBC should have resolved, but didn't, last decade, and for which it is now paying a dear price -- both to the NBC brand and ultimately Mr. Zucker whose conspicuous absence through this mess is deafening.

Is the communications situation hopeless? It sure seems so, but again, I do think Mr. Zucker could take his head out of the sand to try to silence the schadenfreude crowd with a contrite mea culpa. In the end, however, it'll be a programming solution -- if one can even be found -- not a PR plan, that will put this tempest to bed. Then again, there's Haiti.

Update (January 19) - Jeff Zucker emerges in interviews with New York Times and Charlie Rose.

Socially Engaged

This post is by from The Flack

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A few years back, my long-time friend, collaborator and sometimes client Rob Key of award-winning social media consultancy Converseon outlined how companies ideally should endeavor to engage the social graph.

He called the process "cultural anthropology," and by so doing, recognized that each social channel or community had distinct customs and a language of its own. (At the time, the objects of clients' affections were a burgeoning Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, Second Life, and some niche online communities.)

Rob warned that companies must first take time to gain a clear understanding of these nets' disparate languages and customs before attempting to make their presence known. At the time, many "forward-thinking" marketers blindly jumped into the social fray, hoping to exert or exact influence, and instead ended up paying a price in sullied reputation.

I've since heard others echo Rob's mantra using that now clichéd party metaphor, i.e., don't walk up to a group in deep conversation at a cocktail party and just start blathering away.

Today, the advice to individually engage each social channel also rings true for those building their personal brand identities (and spheres of influence). I ask:
  • How many online communities are you active in?
  • Are your "friends" the same from channel to channel?
  • How do you determine whom to friend or unfriend from community to community?
  • Do you intra-link your comments, tweets and posts between your social nets?
User protocols vary from person to person. Personally, I can't figure out the rationale for following tens of thousands of people on Twitter, or why one would give perfect strangers access to your real-time whereabouts on FourSquare.

Anyway, I thought I'd take some time to outline the approach I make to the social channels in which I have an active presence. Please know that they are not by any stretch a model for everyone. They just happen to work for me...for now:

  • Followers: I welcome and encourage anyone to follow me, except for SPAM artists, Twitter-baiters who extol the secret sauce for building followers, and dubious 3rd party app promoters requesting both my Twitter name AND password.
  • Following: I am very judicious about whom I follow. They tend to be authoritative voices in the media, marketing, technology, and PR space. Those who post pics showing what's on their dinner plates or describe their daily exercise regimen almost always get "the unfollow."

  • Contrary to how most Facebookers use this channel, I limit my FB friends to business associates and thought-leaders, also in the media, marketing, PR, and technology space.
  • As a result, I've been put on the spot by my brothers, sister, and many forgotten high school and college friends and acquaintances. Fortunately, my three sons proceeded to block me after I signed up, which saved me even more agida.

  • This is probably the most inclusive of my social networks. I have more than 500 friends who run the gamut from industry thought leaders to current and past clients to former colleagues at the agencies I've worked over a long career in PR.
  • As a rule, I have not accepted LinkedIn invitations from people I don't know or know about. I also refrain from linking in with PR industry service vendors or headhunters, both of which stand to gain more from mining my network than I do from tapping theirs.

  • I'm finding more and more digerati whom I know or know of, have joined this location-based social network(ing game). Who doesn't love the surprise of earning a new badge or moniker when periodically checking-in?
  • However, the CEO of a major fashion house told me over the holidays that he finds it creepy to share one's whereabouts with a bunch of randoids. He's right. Hence, I have thus far resisted invitations to connect on FourSquare with people I really don't know (and trust).

  • I apply the same rules of familiarity to Dopplr, which tracks and promotes my travel plans by city versus FourSquare's local venue approach.

  • What's TimesPeople? It's a growing network of New York Times readers who follow each others' story recommendations from NYTimes.com. It allows users to keep tabs on the most recommended, commented and tweeted stories.
  • Like Twitter, I welcome anyone to follow my story recommendations, but try to follow those whose opinions I respect. I may not know them personally, as is the case with some Times staffers, but I'm always curious to learn what they deem worth reading.

  • I joined Friendfeed after Scobleizer began touting its magical powers of connection. Since that time, however, my use of the channel for posting original content has waned.
  • My Friendfeed today, with 342 followers, captures and streams my editorial output from several sources including my blog, Twitter feed and Facebook page.
In addition to those mentioned above, I use Ping.fm (now owned by Seesmic) to aggregate these disparate social networks (not unlike Friedfeed), del.icio.us for bookmarking, bit.ly as a URL shortening/bookmarking tool, and am now experimenting with Gist, Google Wave, and Brizzly.

The reasons why I've embraced the social graph would merit a whole other post, but suffice to say that these (and others on the horizon) are the channels that eventually will serve as vital links to your client's core constituencies (and your own ability to exert influence). Those in the PR biz should take the time to learn how to navigate them.

Christian Constituents and The Blind Side

This post is by from The Flack

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The Daily Beast today reports on the remarkable box office success of the Sandra Bullock-starrer "The Blind Side." The film to date has grossed more that $200 million on a paltry budget (by Hollywood's standards) of $29 million. It usurped "Twilight: New Moon" in its third week atop the weekly rankings.

Could it be that Ms. Bullock's star has finally taken hold big time? (I'm told she's fab in the flick.) Does "The Blind Side" mark the resurrection of sports on the big screen after the disappointing George Clooney-starrer "Leatherheads?" The answers are likely neither, though the film's “four quadrant” appeal to male, female, young and old, certainly helps.

Apparently, the movie's marketers had the divine provenance to retain a PR firm that specializes in corralling the Christian coalition.
"Grace Hill Media, a marketing and PR firm that specializes in faith-based audiences, was aggressively selling The Blind Side to pastors and ministers around the country."
Now this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a studio tapped the faithful to drive box office receipts. In October 2005, I wrote about a similar scheme to support the "Chronicles of Narnia," and before that, another sports film - for golf. And then, who can forget the special screenings organized for Mel Gibson's (misguided but most profitable) "Passion," including one for the Pope? (Talk about engaging a key influencer!)

As for "The Blind Side," the tactics were familiar:
"One of Grace Hill’s most innovative techniques was to provide half a dozen clips from The Blind Side, along with “sermon outlines,” to 22,000 megachurches (most of which are equipped with huge screens, typically used to display lyrics to rock hymns). Pastors were encouraged to, while showing a movie clip to their congregation, apply a “biblical connection” and “life application” contained in the Grace Hill promotional materials."
The stategy to court constituents (and potential evangelists, literally) to create advance movie buzz is nothing new. I remember years ago working on the film "Absence of Malice" in which an everyday businessman (Paul Newman) was libeled by newspaper reporter (Sally Field). The studio retained PR legend John Scanlan to engage journalism and legal groups to explore what constitutes journalistic "malice" and in so doing, create buzz for the film. Our firm handled mainstream entertainment media outreach (as if there were any other).

And today, with the advent of niche social networks, the process of identifying or even building fresh channels of like-minded constituents becomes that much easier.

Anatomy of a Controlled Leak

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On Monday evening, I tweeted the following:
@PeterHimler March shipping date. Price of $1K. My my. How unApple-like for new product details to leak in advance of the launch.
8:43 PM Jan 4th from Power Twitter
Late yesterday, the good folks from The Mac Observer peeled back the skin of Apple's seemingly invincible PR department with the following post "How Apple Does Controlled Leaks." Former Apple senior marketing manager John Montellaro writes:
"Often Apple has a need to let information out, unofficially. The company has been doing that for years, and it helps preserve Apple's consistent, official reputation for never talking about unreleased products."
He then applies his parer even deeper:
"The way it works is that a senior exec will come in and say, 'We need to release this specific information. John, do you have a trusted friend at a major outlet? If so, call him/her and have a conversation. Idly mention this information and suggest that if it were published, that would be nice. No e-mails!'"
He reveals that no "paper trail" should be left behind. All clandestine outreach is conducted over the (i)Phone. In the case of Tuesday's "controlled leak" in the Wall Street Journal, the sources cited were "people briefed by the company". Hmmm.

Of course, this is a win-win situation for Apple PR. The company can't be accused of playing media favorites, yet still gets the word out via a most influential outlet. What's more, Mr. Montellaro writes,
"Walt Mossberg was bypassed so that Mr. Mossberg would remain above the fray, above reproach. Also, two journalists at the WSJ were involved. That way, each one could point the finger at the other and claim, "I thought he told me to run with this story! Sorry."
Gee. I knew something was not right in the state of Cupertino, but then again maybe this is how Apple typically leverages its mojo with its journalistic followers. Whatever the case, can you blame the company for leaking its ace in the hole what with Google PR's slam dunk yesterday for its new "superphone" the Nexus One?

Now we just have to wait until the formal announcement on January 26 January 27, a date that was first leaked in late December.

Photo via Gizmodo.com

A PR Nexus

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Wasn't it just swell of Robert Scoble (@scobleizer) to set up a video camera at today's Google presser introducing the Nexus One, Google's presumed iPhone killer?

Midway through the event, I counted some 16,000+ people signed on to watch the historical event unfold. (You see, Robert, having all those followers can come in handy.)

I just wonder why Google's PR peeps didn't go through the trouble of web-streaming their own news conference, while arranging for on-site attendees to record wirelessly, to ensure optimal site lines and audio. But then again, Google likely wouldn't have enabled the dialog box that accompanied Scoble's Ustream feed. (See photo above.)

Of course when the Google executive-in-charge announced that all in-person (Googleplex) attendees could pick up their own Nexus One's "starting at 12 Noon downstairs," I had to suggest that those on the webcast should also take part in the payola. Someone then likened it to the Oprah auto giveaway.

Still, you have to give Google credit for getting all those early adopters to eat out of its hand. Virtually every tech influencer I follow on Twitter regurgitated today's talking points. And why wouldn't they? Here were a few of the highlights I caught when not penning a client news release:
  • "The Nexus One belongs in an emerging category of devices we call 'super phones.'"
  • The text-driven apps are all voice-enabled, e.g., "take me to Mt. Fuji" on Google Earth or, "Hey, I'm really enjoying the phone's QWERTY keyboard" on GMail.
  • Google's Nexus One (w/Android OS) can be purchased via new Google-hosted web store, a first for the company (though in during the Q&A, Wired's Fred Vogelstein questioned Google's retailing acumen, or rather lack thereof)
And last, but hardly least:
  • Google's Nexus One to be available through Verizon Wireless come this spring via Google's new web store
Wow. So much fort Verizon jumping in to bed with the iPhone. Herer's a round-up of some of the coverage of today's big event:
Hey. Didn't Google give Joshua Topolsky of Engadget the exclusive back on December 14? "Exclusive: First Google hone/Nexus One Photos, Android 2.1 On Board"

And if this all wasn't enough, you can watch Scoble's video of today's presser here.